Jimmy Bralower: Web Exclusive
DECEMBER 17, 2010
by Billy Amendola
“Jimmy Bralower pioneered the trail of what we programmers were to become—co-creators connecting the artist with technology, while retaining the musicality and expressiveness with what the future tools of creativity offered to us. Those who worked with us as a programming team called us Killer B’s. As musicians we used our skills and experience as players to collaborate with the artists in a very interactive way—offering the flexibility of live musicians that artists were used to working with, while using programming as a tool to expand their creativity and offer a kind of flexibility that had not been known before.”—keyboardist, producer, & programmer Jeff Bova
Jimmy Bralower was born to make records. The drummer started playing at a very young age, and by the time he was in his early teens, his first band, the Young Ones, had signed a deal with a major label. In the ensuing years Bralower worked his way from clubs and concert halls to becoming a first-call studio drummer. In 1980 he created a new way to present drums on record, diving into the brand-new electronic technology and mixing it with acoustic kit work.
Although he didn’t invent the machines, Bralower most certainly led the way in developing the way they were used. In a short period of time—and at just the right time—he skyrocketed to become a master of his game by programming and playing on records that have since sold in excess of 250 million copies. All through the ’80s and ’90s, if a record was made—especially at the famed Power Station in New York City—there’s a very good chance Jimmy was on it.
In September of 2000, Bralower combined his skills for talent development and record making and became VP of A&R for Atlantic Records. These days Jimmy is still active, playing, writing, and producing from his state-of-the-art home studio in Long Island, New York, where an astounding collection of multiplatinum records hang on the walls. Among the artists he has worked with over the years: Kurtis Blow, Hall & Oates, Madonna, Steve Winwood, Peter Gabriel, Duran Duran, Cyndi Lauper, Meat Loaf, Celine Dion, Eric Clapton, Carly Simon, Nile Rodgers, the Bee Gees, and Britney Spears—and that’s just barely scratching the surface.
Among Bralower’s recent projects are the Soul Survivors’ Heart Full Of Soul CD (featuring original members Charlie and Richie Ingui), which Jimmy played on and coproduced (with Johnny Gale) for his own label, 45 Records. Currently he’s producing soul singer Ryan Shaw’s next record, a follow-up to their previous collaboration, This Is Ryan Shaw, which earned them a Grammy nomination. Shaw’s song “In Between,” which Jimmy cowrote, produced, and mixed at his studio, is nominated this year for Best Traditional R&B Vocal Performance.
The February 2011 issue of MD includes two stories with Bralower—his Gimme 10! list of tips, and his unique Kit Of The Month article, where he runs down some of his classic studio gear. Here we talk more about his early years, electronic drum technology, and the projects he’s working on now.
MD: Let’s start by discussing the era when producers and songwriters were always asking programmer/drummers, “Can you make the machine sound real?”
Jimmy: [laughs] Well, that was the joke. It was like they wanted the real guy to sound like a machine and they wanted the machine to sound like a drummer. There was no winning. The technology was so weak for synchronizing that if somebody cut a live track and they wanted those sounds, I had to play them by hand onto the live track.
MD: Can you explain how you synched it up?
Jimmy: I’ve got war stories that would make your blood curdle. [laughs] A lot of times people didn’t cut to clicks. For example, one time I was replacing drums on an Eric Clapton record that was cut live and I had to manufacture a click track by hand, by tapping it manually. It was insane.
MD: So if you were working on a drum track, would you play or program exactly what was played on top of what was already there?
Jimmy: I would replace stuff at times. If they didn’t like the sounds or the part, I would have to get rid of the drums. It’s like building a house and saying, “I’m going to take the concrete out from underneath it.” That was the game. And there were no tools to do it with. I had to learn how to be really resourceful [when producers or artists were] not taking no for an answer.
Another example was when I worked with Peter Gabriel. He had this track that he’d cut in the ’70s with one of the earliest drum machines, and the clock in it was random, so the tempo was wandering. I programmed it and rode the tempo knob on my machine in real time, getting it as close as I could without it drifting too much. It was that kind of stuff—whatever you had to do.
MD: You were like a mad scientist.
Jimmy: Well, I really enjoyed it, but at times it was crazy. One time this guy made a demo at home on his Teac 8-track that got him a deal. It was this amazing demo, but he had no drumkit. He had a snare drum, but he played the kick drum with a note on his ARP synthesizer, and his “hi-hat” was a cymbal that he placed on his living room couch to deaden. And he played each part one at a time with two hands. It was impossible to re-create those parts. His kick drums were doing these 16th-note skips that would have made Jim Chapin cringe. [laughs] It was like four guys playing at once, all totally random. So I was thinking like a drummer, and I’m thinking, I can’t do this in real time. So I start manufacturing it one part at a time. And then, at the same time, it was the beginning of the era when everyone wanted it perfect.
Disco was when the metronome showed up in pop music. Before then I was the metronome. I would count off a song and play it. I never thought twice about being locked in time—it was all feel. Now they wanted each kick drum hit to sound exactly the same, and they’re looking at the meter to see where it’s peaking. Or they made you sit there and play your drums for eight hours to get a sound. My theory is that before 24-track every engineer was trying to get control of the session, because everything was leaking [into other mics]. They never had control over sound, and when they finally did they went crazy trying to isolate each drum on a separate track.
MD: I remember that on a lot of my sessions, I’d go in with my Octapad, triggering kick and snare with my hands. Then I’d go in and do live cymbals and hi-hat, and then overdub toms.
Jimmy: Exactly. If you were playing a live kit the drums used to go on four or five tracks. Now with 24-track they would suddenly go on eight or nine. So not only did they want them on separate tracks, they didn’t want to hear a tom buzzing the snare. They didn’t want to hear any other sound on a track but the kick drum or snare drum. So the whole rest of the kit would be isolated, and they’d use gates and tape the drums up just to separate everything. It’s kind of like recording a guitar with each string on a separate track. You can screw up a drummer’s feel by unbalancing those separate tracks. It was a nightmare. So the machine really gave me the control back from what I was dealing with.
And it was still all about performances. It was a real interesting time. All these technologies were converging. When I started working at the Power Station as a session drummer, it was Steve Gadd, Steve Ferrone—guys that were great—and I thought, I’m really good, but I’m not THAT guy. So this was my hook; the time was right, and I was the guy. I got on all those records because I was the drummer who knew how to use all the equipment.
Back in the day everybody was being adventurous; nobody really knew what he or she was doing. But I was fortunate that I got to do it with good, smart people. There were a lot of people who were doing it but weren’t working on good songs or with good singers. I was lucky, though I worked really hard to position myself to stay working at the Power Station.
All my favorite-sounding records were coming out of that place, so I figured out a way to get in there. Dire Straits, Nile Rodgers—they all had Linn drums sitting in a box out in the main room. Nobody knew how to use it, but everyone wanted it. So I saw the way to go—it was like a fist coming at my face, it was so obvious. So I said, I’m going to learn how to do this.
MD: And they didn’t want only the keyboard player or guitarist programming the drum parts.
Jimmy: That’s exactly right. They knew I was a drummer, and they knew I could sit and play, so they felt that I understood what they were looking for. And I liked making records, so I wanted to be in the studio for the whole process. What started happening was I’d go in, they’d give me a cassette of a demo, and I’d program drums without any other music around. It was so antiseptic.
Around this time I also started working with a great keyboard player/programmer, Jeff Bova. The two of us were like a band with all the electronics. We would go in and actually play—I could hear a bass part and change my kick drum accordingly. So now it’s more producing, playing, programming, doing the whole thing.
The drum machine actually freed me up—once I stopped thinking, What would a drummer do? and instead thought, What would a drummer do if he had three hands? In those days programmed sounds were so unnatural and in your face. Normally a drummer in a room glues it all together with a little ambience. But with the machine, the hi-hat was over here and the tom was over there…. It was so discrete and spread-out that if I stopped playing the hi-hat to do a fill, like you would as a drumset player, it sounded idiotic. So I thought, If a drummer had three hands and he could keep playing his hat while he was doing a fill, he probably would. So I just went for how it sounded. And it sounded more natural to me to do things that were unnatural. It was always about sound. Not, “What would I do if…” but, “How does this sound?” Because bottom line, at the end of the day, no listener really knows or cares. And playing with a machine, I had a whole percussion section.
The whole drum machine thing, drummers got taken aback by it. They hated the drum machine. But I loved it. I could just let it go and play on top of it. If I’m playing drums and someone is playing tambourine or shaker, I can do other stuff as opposed to feeling like I’ve got to do more to cover for 16ths. So it opened up a whole new world. It was pretty daunting because I would have guys, who shall remain nameless, who walked into the studio and saw my machine and wanted to throw it through the window of the control room. I had drummers crying in the corner of the control room. I was such a bad guy to some people. And then there were guys like Mickey Curry [Hall & Oates, Bryan Adams] and Jim Keltner who understood that this was just a new option, and we got along great. I always say it’s just like another color, not like “either/or.”
What’s happened these days with some modern rock bands is that every drummer sounds the same because he’s playing a million miles an hour and it’s all quantized. You can’t tell the difference between styles, so you lose the personality. It’s just a drum part—it’s not a guy playing it anymore. And at that point the machine wins, because the machine does it perfectly, and without an attitude. [laughs] It’s funny because I’m not into perfect. I used to have to program imperfect things in there just to make a turnaround feel more natural. That’s when you’ve got to use your band-guy ear as opposed to your technician’s ear.
There are a lot of reasons why things are different today. I’m not saying it’s better or worse. But I do think it’s a problem that they’ve taken away the need to go out and play in a band and learn what it is to play hit songs—getting them under your belt before you start writing them, and learning what it is to perform. It’s like saying, “I watch Grey’s Anatomy, and I’m going to open up a practice.” That’s what it is with music today. There are a lot of guys who don’t learn, so there’s a big center missing in peoples’ experience.
MD: Let’s go back to when you first started playing.
Jimmy: It’s the old Ed Sullivan story—when Ringo and the Beatles came around. I started a band when I was thirteen, and we learned how to play together as a band by playing to Ventures records. Those guys were the studio musicians of those days. We got a record deal a year later. I was fourteen and I’m in the studio making a record. So that’s what I was doing up through high school. Then I went to college and went crazy, quit school a couple of times to be in bands. In those days if you wanted to be in the music business, there was no college degree for that. The college degree for me was going out and playing in bars. So I did that for a while and had a few bands and tried to make it.
MD: Did you ever take lessons?
Jimmy: I did get a drum teacher, Johnny Blowers, who was a big-band guy. He was a very musical drummer from the Gene Krupa school, and he taught me about accompanying singers. I learned from him about playing drums in ensembles, rather than being a soloist. He taught me about timekeeping and paying attention to the singer.
MD: What else did you listen to?
Jimmy: I was into guys like Dave Clark and his records—which turned out to be someone else playing—but my influences were all the guys in those British bands. I loved that stuff. Jazz-wise it was Blakey, Max Roach—the very musical guys. I was always attracted to that type of drummer. Then later I got into Mitch Mitchell and Ginger Baker. That whole five-year period from like ’64 to ’69 sealed the deal for me. It was a bombardment of unbelievable music that just kept coming.
I learned to appreciate the Motown guys a little later. My next-door neighbor when I was growing up was Hal David, who was Burt Bacharach’s partner. I didn’t really pay much attention to it at the time, but those old Dionne Warwick records that they wrote the songs for were being written right under my nose. I would hang out in their house, and that’s what was going on there. Now those are some of my favorite records from those days, but back then I was more into the guys with the Vox amps. That scene was more appealing than the R&B thing, which ironically I’ve been doing a lot more of now with a lot of retro soul music.
Of course, growing up on Long Island, I liked Carmine Appice and the Rascals with Dino Danelli—there was a whole scene going on around here, which was not the kind of music my band was playing. I was a total Blues Project fiend, a big Al Kooper fan. And Jim Keltner was an influence, Levon Helm too. All of those style guys really got to me. I was into their style rather than their technique, which is something I really believe in. Technique is something you have so you can play whatever you feel.
When I started doing sessions, it became clear to me that there were two kinds of session guys. One kind I call seat fillers, like, “I need a drummer,” and you could put anyone in the slot. The other kind is, “I need Keltner,” “I need Gadd,” you know what I’m saying? You can’t teach style to people. I once saw Levon, Ringo, and Keltner at a Ringo show at Jones Beach—three of the most unique drum styles ever. And it was fascinating because it wasn’t just three drummers, it was three personalities. I was always more attracted to style than to how fast someone can play.
MD: Would you say that since you’ve always been a “song” guy, that’s why you’re producing and writing now?
Jimmy: Absolutely! The drummer in the music I liked was always the solid timekeeper—Al Jackson’s style of playing. We didn’t know who those guys were in those days because they weren’t advertised. I didn’t know who the Wrecking Crew was or that Hal Blaine was playing on half of the records I loved. My line is that in those days the music ran the business, and today the business runs the music. A lot of good music has gotten marginalized these days.
When I was a kid and got signed to Columbia, I would go up to the offices, and all the producers were also the A&R guys. Russ Titelman, who was part of that Warner Brothers A&R team, Gary Katz, Teddy Templeman—they were all the big producers. To me an A&R guy was a producer. I would think, When I grow up, that’s what I want to be! I got hired at Atlantic as VP of A&R to do exactly that, but it was a difficult time, as it is today, to develop new talent at a big record company.
MD: When you were playing acoustic drums on sessions, were you reading charts?
Jimmy: I wasn’t a good reader, but I was a quick study. I could memorize something after hearing it once. I could read, but for some reason, the way my brain works, if I’m looking at a page…I’d rather close my eyes and get inside it.
I came from playing in bands. Sometimes I don’t feel like a drummer. I feel like…I don’t want to say a musician who plays the drums, but I’m not just in “drummer land.” To me it’s part of a package. It’s not an isolated thing. If I had to play a ten-minute drum solo in the studio, it wasn’t really my favorite thing. My favorite thing was to find a sweet spot and get in with it, just feel the music. That’s why that Al Jackson stuff is so great. To me there’s nothing better than that.
Also, the thing with drumming is, when you have a chart there’s a right and a wrong. If you don’t play what’s on the chart, then what you played is wrong. As a producer I realized that you have to leave yourself open to accidents—the best things that happen are when somebody does something “wrong” that’s better than what was “right.” If you’re saying, “Hey, that’s not what’s on the chart,” then you never get the kind of happy accidents that are on some of your favorite records. It’s a real reactive sport to me.
I came up in an era when recording was performance. There was no technology. I remember my first recordings were on two mono machines. We’d all play, and then we’d all do mass overdubs together and ping-pong between the machines. And you had to mix on the fly—you had to make decisions on the spot. If it sounded good to you then, it still sounds the same today as it did the day you recorded it. Whereas today, you really can fix it in the mix.
MD: What are a few of your most memorable sessions?
Jimmy: Stevie Winwood’s “Higher Love.” Russ Titelman produced it. I came in first and did machines, and then JR Robinson came in and loosened it up with live drums. On that record there’s live drums, machine drums, machine percussion, and live percussion all together. We weren’t afraid to mix and match, whereas most people would say either we’re using machines or we’re going live. We did both. Steve is a brilliant programmer, and he had all these ideas. I spent a lot of time in a hotel room doing preproduction with him. He was an idol of mine. It was an amazing thing to watch that record come to life.
I did a lot of memorable work with Jim Steinman. Another was Eric Clapton’s track “No Alibis” with Jim Keltner. I did a lot of work with Jim. He and I are really good buddies. He’s unafraid and curious, and really into it. And he’s just the sweetest guy—a real human being. That’s when I got to work with Clapton and George Harrison. For me, you could have stopped everything right after that session!
Then there was the record I did with Cyndi Lauper, “True Colors.” I played live and set up all these delays so that every time I would hit a pad it would pulse in time with the track, because the only way to cut that song was to have her sing live with the keyboard player. We had to figure out ways to do it. That was a real interesting one, and it was special.
There are so many others—Jimmy Cliff, Peter Gabriel…. Working with those guys is an adventure, just going into the creative zone. Hall & Oates was a big one for me because “Say It Isn’t So” was the first really big hit that I played on. I had a huge hit with Celine Dion called “It’s All Coming Back To Me Now,” which is a Jim Steinman record. That was eight minutes of real-time programming. Roy Bittan played a piano part on the demo, and they used that on the track, so it was all free time. It was huge; it sold like 7 million copies.
MD: Can you explain what real-time programming is?
Jimmy: It’s when you start with a live track that isn’t in time. With “It’s All Coming Back To Me Now,” they loved Roy’s performance so much that they wanted to build the record around it. They tried having a live guy play drums to it, but it was so complicated—because each section was different—that we had to really get into the dirty details of what was going on in each eight bars. So I had to create that and then figure out a way to manually synchronize to this piano, which was playing in free time. I could program the machine, but quantized to what? If the third bar slowed down, I had to play it to the piano. So I would play it out of quantized time into the machine.
When I was doing fills I would normally play them in real time on the pads, like on a Simmons pad or an Octapad. The backbeats, the basic drum part, was quantized, though I got into playing hi-hat stuff in real time just because it was much easier to play it than to program each note dynamically. And that would make it breathe.
The problem with “It’s All Coming Back To Me Now”—and if you listen to the record you’ll hear this—is that it changes up constantly. So we had to do it in pieces and somehow make it feel as if it actually happened live, like we were actually playing along with the piano. It was nuts.
Another memorable session was Brian Wilson’s “Love And Mercy,” a true highlight for me. I got to do a Beach Boys/Hal Blaine kind of thing, but once again I had to play the pads to a track that wasn’t quantized. So I played the pads by hand, tapping them in real time. All the percussion was live, and I would tap the fills on my Linn drum, just like a loose, Hal Blaine–does-Ringo thing.
MD: So what are you up to these days?
Jimmy: I started making records with Ryan Shaw and Soul Survivors because I wanted to have some fun again. I was making Japanese pop records, and it was all Pro Tools, Auto-Tune, and everyone sitting around the screen watching the lines go by on the grid. At night I would go in and do old soul music, which was so much more energized and spirited.
MD: Are you playing acoustic or electronic drums?
Jimmy: Both. Recently I took out my old Ludwig kit and set it up right next to my console. The nice thing is that I can lock them up with the machine after I play. I can have it as tight or as loose as I want.
MD: Do you use any plug-ins like Drumagog, or other software?
Jimmy: Yes, I use a lot of the Toontrack stuff, the Superior Drummer thing, EZdrummer, BFD—the programming tools. I use Drumagog if I need to. Fortunately, I got to make samples back in the day with Tom Lord-Alge and Neil Dorfsman, and those samples were always better than the ones that showed up in all those packages. There was always a chunkier sound to be had than what the chips or the sample libraries were offering, because a lot of those were made by guys who weren’t that good—guys who just wanted to make money.
Tony Bongiovi [Jon Bon Jovi’s uncle and owner of the Power Station studio] taught me the biggest lesson in the studio: “The knob goes to the right.” [laughs] It’s funny, because I got to spend some time with Geoff Emerick, who engineered all those Beatles records. He was brutal. He would synch up five equalizers, cranked up to get a sound. Things that would make most engineers have a heart attack. You’ve got to trust your ear, man. You just turn that knob until it sounds good—that’s the lesson I learned from all the good guys. They are fearless. You’ve got to be.
It’s changed a little now in the way I can put the two together. I have a little more control over locking up, how tight I want the live drums to be next to the machines, keep the right-hand stuff loose but keep the kick and snare locked up.
MD: So the technology has made it easier.
Jimmy: Yes. One good thing is that I can use my demo as the beginning of the “for real” take. The game back then was always “Beat the demo!” The problem with that approach is that you’re comparing, not reacting. And that’s where the shit goes down the tubes. Demos are based on reckless abandon, and records are generally based on making it perfect. It definitely is not the same thing. But the beauty now is that I can go back to the original file and build from that, where in the past you’d have to re-create the magic from a cassette demo.
It also depends on what you want to do with the technology. I look at Pro Tools as a tape recorder that can do things a tape recorder couldn’t do. Some people look at it like something to fix broken parts. But I see it as, “Hey, what if I move these drums over a 16th note? What happens if I move this fill over an 8th note?” I couldn’t ever do that with a tape recorder. I like trying things and seeing what happens.
Geoff Emerick said, “There’s no science to this—you just make what’s coming out of the speakers please you. Whatever it takes, don’t look.” I worked with Jason Corsaro, and when he mixed, the meters on his tape machine were pinned in the red. The guy went, “Hey, you’re overloading,” and he said, “How does it sound?” The guy says, “It sounds great.” Jason would get gaffer’s tape and cover up the meters so nobody could see them. Maybe you like the distortion. So what? How does it sound? When people start asking how it looks instead of how it sounds…the only question you need to ask is, “Is it alright?” I love all the technology, but I’ve always believed you have to own it, not the other way around.